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Mississippi governor not worried about Toyota delay

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is putting an optimistic spin on Toyota’s decision to wait a few extra months to open its auto manufacturing plant in Blue Springs.

Barbour said Monday that the delay until mid-2010 could mean there is a “higher likelihood” Toyota will train the plant’s first assembly line workers in Mississippi rather than sending them to another of the company’s sites out of state.

“For our community college instructors to learn how to teach that, to learn it on the newest, most sophisticated equipment, will be a boon for Mississippi,” Barbour said in response to questions during a news conference at the state Capitol.

Toyota officials announced in early 2007 that the company had chosen a 1,700-acre site in northeast Mississippi to build the company’s eighth North American auto manufacturing plant. The Highlander sport utility vehicle will be built there.

A senior Toyota executive said in Tokyo Monday that plans for the Mississippi plant are being delayed by worries about slumping American auto sales and a broader U.S. economic slowdown.

The assembly plant initially was to start operating in late 2009 or early 2010, said Toyota Motor Corp. Executive Vice President Mitsuo Kinoshita. That has now been pushed back to mid-2010 after Toyota reviewed the plans and considered the signs of a slowdown in the U.S. market after the subprime mortgage crisis, Kinoshita told reporters at a Tokyo hotel.

“We made adjustments within a certain range of time,” Kinoshita said. “The change wasn’t that critical.”

Barbour said Toyota executives have been speaking with state officials for the past several months about a possible delay.

David Rumbarger is president and CEO of the Community Development Foundation in Tupelo, which in 2007 persuaded Toyota to build in Mississippi. Rumbarger said Monday that Toyota probably will start filling its initial round of assembly line jobs in late fall or in winter, rather than this summer.

The plant will create 2,000 jobs in an area that’s been hurt by losses in furniture manufacturing positions. Rumbarger said Toyota will have about 1,800 jobs for the first phase of production, and the jobs will pay about $14 to $15 an hour — slightly higher than the $13 an hour average for other skilled-labor jobs in the area.

Rumbarger said most of the Toyota site has been cleared and leveled, steel beams have been erected, concrete has been poured and part of the roof has been put on the sprawling plant.

“They’ve got a couple hundred million dollars in the ground already,” Rumbarger said. “This is not an issue of do it or not do it. (Toyota) really is trying to hit the marketplace at the right time.”

Mississippi lawmakers approved an incentive package in 2007 that includes $293.9 million for Toyota, much of which will cover costs for infrastructure such as roads, and water and sewer lines for the site near Tupelo. The package also has $30 million from the state for top-tier Toyota suppliers and $60 million from local governments for land acquisition and water supplies.

Nissan opened Mississippi’s first auto manufacturing plant in Canton, a few miles north of Jackson, in 2003.